INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION by JOHN CALVIN
Translated from the first French edition of 1541 by Robert White, The Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 2014.
“A prophet is without honour in his own country”. Jesus’ words have proved true of Jean Calvin, the greatest Frenchman. They also resonate with regard to his brilliant Australian translator, Robert White, former Senior Lecturer in French Studies at the University of Sydney. Robert who came to Christ in a John Stott mission in 1958, gained Honours in Latin and French at SU before proceeding to post graduate studies in Paris in the 1960s. His doctorate from the Sorbonne was for his work on an obscure, bohemian French playwright. But it was in those years that he began a lifelong study of the Reformation in French speaking areas of Europe. An extraordinarily modest scholar, we can be grateful that his specialist articles in overseas journals attracted the attention of publishers in the USA and UK. Robert White has now produced at least four books on Calvin’s sermons, the latest being his Sermons on Titus, also published by The Banner of Truth Trust (2015).
Why another translation of The Institutes, you may ask? Most of us encountered Calvin through Henry Beveridge’s version of 1845 or the two volumes by Ford Lewis Battles published in 1960. Both of these were based on the last Latin edition of 1559. All told, The Institutes passed through six Latin editions and three French before receiving their final form. The massive treatise of 1559 is five times the length of the concise primer of 1536. Qualitatively however, there is no fundamental change. Scripture still determines both the content and scope of Calvin’s enterprise. The grace and glory of God remain his theme. The growth from edition to edition reflects Calvin’s pastoral experience, his exegetical reflection, and the unceasing pressure of theological debate both within and outside the churches of the Reformation.
The French version (1541) of The Institutes which Robert White translates, is significant in that its target audience is no longer limited to educated Latin readers, but reaches out in a more familiar style to a broader constituency. Although it recasts the original “catechism” of 1536 into a more ambitious, thorough and methodical exposition of Christian Theology, it is less daunting for modern readers, White suggests, than the final edition of 1559 has proved to be (Karl Barth called it, somewhat harshly, a “primeval forest”!). The last chapter on the believer’s walk with Christ is a model of pastoral insight and was destined to enter the last edition of The Institutes virtually unchanged.
Robert Whites fresh translation of Calvin’s French Institutes makes the Reformer live again. The reader will be impressed by the power and relevance of his Biblical teaching for modern Christians. For the doubtful, I suggest the reading of Calvin’s Preface – his appeal to the King of France. It is surely one of the most moving letters ever penned.
Anthony H Nichols.